Updated on 09.13.07

The Five College Classes I Took That Were Actually Worth My Time And Money

Trent Hamm

When I look back at my college experience, I realize that almost all of the classes directly tied to my major had almost nothing to do with what I ended up doing with my life. Instead, they mostly served to show that I was adaptable and could repeatedly apply basic ideas – which is fine, but it didn’t serve me well on a broader scale.

On the other hand, there were a handful of classes that wound up helping me a lot in my life throughout all of my jobs. I didn’t take some of them as seriously as I should have (if only I had known…) but the skills that I picked up in these classes have come up time and time again. In short, no matter what you’re doing in college, try to fit at least some of these courses into your educational plan.

Here are the five courses that were really helpful to me in adult professional life.

Basic English and composition At the college I attended, all students had to take a two semester sequence on basic written English – something I later discovered was fairly standard. The first semester was grammar, which was rather boring but managed to ingrain some basic tenets of written English into me. The second semester was composition. They were basically a continuation and reinforcement of what I had learned in high school, but I still find them to be a big part of the foundation of my current life success.

Technical writing The part of this class that stuck with me were the repeated exercises we did. We had some piece of technical writing due twice a week, and larger pieces due every other week. This basically forced me to actually practice my technical writing, which has served me over and over again. If you take a technical writing class, don’t bemoan frequent assignments – instead, realize that this repetition is forcing you to learn skills that will serve you forever.

Public speaking The public speaking course that I took was mostly useful in helping me to learn to handle nervousness while speaking in front of others. I learned several little techniques to get over it, and also learned the best tip that anyone has ever given me for life in general: speak slower. If you have to communicate to a room full of people, you’ll lose a lot of them if you talk fast.

Survey of American history “How is this possibly applicable or useful?” you might ask. I found that looking at American history at a college level presented a very clear view of the chain of events that led to modern America and explained the reason behind many things we take for granted: income tax, highways, and the reliance on the federal government, for example. It was very interesting in that the two semester sequence I took was taught in tandem by an individual with a liberal perspective and one with a conservative perspective. If you want to self-educate yourself in the same way, try reading A People’s History of the United States and A Patriot’s History of the United States side by side, though you’ll miss out on the wonderful conversation that a college class can have. The clean view you get of the United States from this will serve you well throughout life.

An applicable foreign language Many college majors require a certain amount of a foreign language. Choose a language that could potentially be of use to you in your life – a heritage language or a language spoken by people that you associate with or may associate with in the future. In the United States, a solid default choice here is Spanish. I chose Latin and, while it was entertaining and actually a bit useful here and there, I would have found either Spanish or French to be much more applicable to my life.

Most colleges make room in the curriculum for these courses; if you have a chance to take them, fit these classes in and don’t blow them off – they will serve you time and time again throughout your life.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. FIRE Finance says:

    A nice set of handy classes. But you have kept your list limited to communication and history? What about some basic courses in computers? IOHO a person without any knowledge as a simple computer user is severely handicapped. We do acquiesce that we loved our classes in American History and Political Science.

  2. plonkee says:

    In England we don’t have this sort of direct general education course at the college level (I took my last English class at the age of 16).

    I don’t think that I’d personally put the History of the US in a most useful course section (had I taken one) but in a similar manner, watching excellent documentary series on the history of Britain and the British monarch has given me a much greater insight into how the UK came to be and the legacy that has.

    Things I learnt at university that turned out to be surprisingly useful include public speaking, writing clear and concise mathematical proofs, and basic programming and coding. As I finished my general education early (normal for England), its actually stuff I learnt at school that has stood me in greater stead.

  3. Million Dollar Journey says:

    Trent, what did you major in College?

  4. Mitch says:

    I would add some human biology–enough to start making sense of health issues–and social psychology.

  5. dong says:

    I suggest everyone take a micro Econ course. Of course I’m biased being a Econ major. I didn’t really love Econ much in college, but Econ is a great course to learn some basic rational thinking when it comes to money and other things.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I majored in a hard science.

    As for computer classes, I found that many, many classes require basic computer use – and this was ten years ago – so I didn’t feel that a basic class on computers is really a vital need today.

  7. viola says:

    I majored in engineering….but a usefull class I took was micro & macro economics (had to take at least 2 of psycho, econ, sociology, etc). I wish I was able to take more business classes..like a basic accounting or how to read a corporations balance sheet. These can help anyone have a better understand of financials & pave the way to learning more about investing, businesses, etc.

    A cheap-o way to get required college credits is to take high school AP classes…then take the AP tests. It was $60 for each test when I took them 10 years ago….This was WAY cheaper than paying for the same clases at college. I got out of 3 english classes and a chemistry. This leaves you more room to spend your college money on classes that are more advanced or aren’t part of your degree but are useful outside of school.

  8. !wanda says:

    A basic course on programming is very useful, both in terms of learning a skill and learning the algorithmic way of thinking.

    In my opinion, everyone should take calculus, because that’s also a very useful way of thinking- that an infinite number of infinitesimal objects can add up to a finite number.

    In my opinion, basic English composition and American history ought to be learned in high school. I went to a good public high school that taught these subjects well (at least in the honors/AP track). I also had a good amount of public speaking in elementary and middle school, which also served me well. I guess in college I had to give paper presentations and lab meetings fairly frequently, but the critiques were focused on the science and not presentation skills.

    My college pretty much taught everyone as if they were going to graduate school in the subject of the class, and that was OK because half of us did, but I wish they had offered classes like general public speaking, biology relevant to health, and programming for non-CS majors.

  9. !wanda says:

    A basic course on programming is very useful, both in terms of learning a skill and learning the algorithmic way of thinking.

    In my opinion, everyone should take calculus, because that’s also a very useful way of thinking- that an infinite number of infinitesimal objects can add up to a finite number.

    In my opinion, basic English composition and American history ought to be learned in high school. I also had a good amount of public speaking in elementary and middle school, which served me very well. I remember wasting a lot of time in elementary and middle school, and the earlier material gets taught, the more likely it is to stick.

  10. Canadian says:

    None of my undergraduate courses are applicable to my job (though my master’s degree was a professional program and therefore applicable), but the opportunity to study things I was interested in (theology, history, philosophy, etc.) was invaluable. I also took courses in French, German, and Latin. Only the French is very useful to me (I use it every day) but then I already had good French before going to university.

    I really believe that an undergraduate university education should not be about preparing students for the job market. I’m with Newman (The Idea of a University) on the value of a liberal education. A liberal education is much harder to come by on one’s own, but you can certainly learn public speaking or English composition elsewhere (e.g. Toastmasters, adult ed courses), although I’m not sure how students get admitted to university without basic English grammar and composition skills!

  11. Canadian says:

    On the other hand, there are definitely skills that are generally useful in many different jobs, which would be useful to pick up when you can, though not necessarily during your undergraduate education:

    1) Trent mentioned writing skills. Being able to write coherently, concisely, without grammatical or spelling mistakes is very important.

    2) Trent mentioned public speaking — I would say being comfortable speaking in front of a group. Many jobs will require you to give presentations or training. What I do is more teaching than public speaking.

    3) Leadership/management/supervisory skills. This will give you an advantage in the job market.

    4) Where I live it is important to be bilingual (English and French).

    5) The ability to get along with different kinds of people.

    You do not necessarily have to pay money to obtain the above skills. You can slowly gain them in various ways. For example, you could start toward gaining confidence in speaking in public by reading Scripture in church (an easy thing to begin with as you are simply reading exactly what is written). Another example: to become more fluent in your second language, get together with someone speaking that language who wants to improve in English. Another example: if you can get a management job yet, try chairing a committee for an organization you’re involved it, or maybe you could do some volunteer work.

  12. SJean says:

    I think english and history can be a waste of time at the college level. Didn’t we learn that in high school? I know it wasn’t as advanced, but I found almost all my classes to be more useful than English. This would only apply to those who actually learned how to properly write in high school…. Had I been better informed, I’d have taken a CLEP test and tested out of them, but instead I wasted 6 credit hours on general composition.

    Everyone doesn’t need caluclus. No way. Don’t get me wrong, I love math, but I just don’t think that the average person needs anything beyond algebra/geometry to get by in life.
    My most useful classes? My major classes. Outside of that… an abstract math elective (probably not useful to all, but those in science), an economics class…. public speaking…

    Regarding languages, I think students should consider Chinese. Seriously.

  13. Scarfish says:

    About the least valuable class I took was one in personal finance. The teacher gave terrible advice all around the board.

    I agree the comp and public speaking were some of the most valuable classes. Another one I really loved was a basic auto mechanics class. I can do all manner of basic and advanced car repair in my driveway now, and I’ve lessened my chances of getting ripped off at the shop. I don’t look like the type of person who’d know anything about cars, but I’ve overhauled an exhaust system in my driveway and can diagnose car problems with about 80% accuracy, which has saved me and my friends a ton of money. Plus, it’s a fun and useful skill, I’m no longer afraid of being stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, and I actually understand how a car works. I think it should be required before anyone can get a license, honestly.

  14. Lauren says:

    Regarding Latin: colleges generally require only two semesters of a language, which will allow you to have a nice chat, but certainly not leave you fluent.

    However, since something like 70% of English words are derived from Latin, two semesters will give you a great boost in vocabulary, plus it makes learning the Romance languages much easier, since they too are derived from it.

    So I certainly wouldn’t cross Latin off your list, especially since law schools and med school have come out and said that they like to see applicants with Latin.

  15. Brad says:

    Anyone graduating college without a logic/abstract math course under their belt is coming out handicapped, IMO . . . and that’s most graduates. I agree that programming is exceptionally useful in a great many fields, but to me that still builds on fundamentals that you learn in math.

    Math as a whole is underappreciated by the general public. It’s not just for science/engineering people– it’s for people who want to critically think and solve problems quicker and better than the average person in their field.

    Am I generalizing? Yes. Am I biased? Probably. But I am 100% positive that I am more adaptable to any field out there having majored in math than I would be had I majored in anything else. I even think my WRITING is better having been a math major (with some programming classes sprinkled in). Critical thinking is the #1 priority in a great many fields and I think Math is the best way to sharpen those skills. DO NOT go to college and think about math as something you have to get through and get over with. It is an opportunity to become a better thinker.

    As for Trent’s list, I only took 1 of the 5 in college (english comp). I feel like I’m missing nothing having skipped public speaking, foreign language (which I tested out of), and technical writing. If I had it to do again, I would still have majored in math but pursued minors in history and perhaps economics.

  16. MS says:

    I was lucky enough to have both a public speaking and negotiation class as part of my education. Both were invaluable.

  17. Canadian says:

    “I think english and history can be a waste of time at the college level.”

    Huh. I think that a truly educated person is knowledgeable about history and literature. An educated person is familiar with Homer and Jane Austen, knows about the Reformation and the Peasants’ Revolt. Some universities offer “Great Books” programs which sound perfect to me.

  18. dong says:

    I also think the classes that are most useful are the one’s that you didn’t know anything about or had no interest in. Learning is all about accumulating knowledge not just studying what interests you. I’m a fan of a core curicculumn.

  19. Kat says:

    I wish writing was taken more seriously at my college. It is one element I wish I was better at. All the other courses I took I use everyday. My major was very specific and I think maybe only one course could have been left out.
    When I have more open time, I will take a writing class at a community college.

  20. Wendy says:

    I, too, value my speech class above most others to this day. English comp, however, was taught by underpaid grad students at my university, so i never heard from anyone who learned anything there.

  21. Andrew Stevens says:

    I took three years of Latin in high school and one semester in college. I actually think Latin is very useful if it’s taught early enough, but college is too late and even high school is pushing it. They told me that learning Latin would improve my English vocabulary, but really it was my English vocabulary which helped me learn Latin. If Latin is taught early enough, though, it would be very helpful in improving English vocabulary. Moreover, being a highly inflected and logical language, it sharpens the mind by forcing you to think analytically and logically.

    Also, Trent mentioned the usefulness of an American history course (for American citizens). The Greco-Roman tradition reverberates through a much larger percentage of the world than just America. In the college that I attended, I discovered that history majors could safely skip all ancient civilizations (which were covered by the Classics Department rather than the History Department). I don’t know how it’s possible to understand the progression of European history (and by extension, North American, South American, and Australian history) without a grounding in Greco-Roman culture.

    Also, allow me to second the people who brought up calculus and economics. Calculus is heavily leveraged in financial fields as well as in the sciences. Those of us who do quantitative work in business absolutely believe it is part of our job to make it understandable, but it would be a whole lot easier if we didn’t have to dumb it down so much.

    I also tend to agree that either an abstract math course or some sort of logic course from the philosophy department would serve most people well. To the gentleman who thought mathematics was the best way to sharpen critical thinking skills, mathematics was one of my majors, and I would say it ties with philosophy (analytical philosophy, not Continental).

    Programming? My other major was in computer science, but I’m not convinced it’s all that useful. The problem with it is that the most useful such course would probably be a high-level theoretical overview of the subject, but there’s a very good reason why most places start off with a course which teaches the basics of a particular language first and then you’re bound to get bogged down in syntax, which has nothing to do with programming in general.

  22. vh says:

    Wonderful man! I’ve taught three of those courses.

    “Everyone doesn’t need caluclus. . . . In my opinion, basic English composition and American history ought to be learned in high school.”

    Yup. But apparently they’re not!

  23. Mrs. Micah says:

    My personal finance class was pretty good. I now understand how 401(k)s work, Roth IRAs, IRAs, term vs. full life insurance, mutual funds, whatnot. It was a good starting place.

    I studied English so I got plenty of writing/comp in and had to take a public communications class.

  24. Liz1 says:

    Yay! Another Latin scholar : )

  25. viola says:

    If you take a class in high school that is rigorous enough to get you out of it in college with an AP or such exam, don’t repeat in college. I do agree with vh though that unless your high school classes were difficult (honors), you should go for those history & composition etc type classes.

    These classes may seem like they don’t apply to real life. But they do….a good history class can show you how government really operates (with propaganda and misinformation haha) so you are aware and can make informed decisions about who to vote for. Anyone seen “Duck and Cover”????

    Also I don’t know how many times I’ve read an email (business) and wondered how the person got a degree, because their grammer and punctuation sucked. Knowing how to use a comma matters a lot to some people, even if it doesn’t matter to you.

  26. Jay says:

    Trent mentions two of the three R’s in the article. What about Arithmetic?

    Count me in as another supporter of everyone who mentioned Math. It is one of those subjects that is very under-appreciated. Math/Science develops analytical thinking and problem solving abilities. *That* is the major benefit of those classes. It’s not about knowing how to do calculus. When I hire people, I have noticed a definite “slowness” of reasoning ability with folks who do not have a math background. Analytical and problem solving abilities are something you use in every facet of life.

    I especially like the foreign language suggestion in the article. Language exercises a different part of the brain. I am not so sure about just American history. I think World history ranks up there also in seeing how the world has evolved. It helps students understand how their country has influenced the direction of humanity.

  27. Dorky Dad says:

    I probably would have gotten more out of going to a technical college (and enjoyed it more), but my high school guidance counselors steered me towards college because I took AP classes & had a high GPA. In hindsight I realize how truly insulting that was, but I digress.

    I like how all of your recommendations are practical, Trent.

    One I would add that you didn’t include is a Tax Accounting class. While tax laws are constantly changing, 99% of the principles I learned from that individual income tax class have remained the same, and they save me a significant amount of money every year. Ignorance is expensive!

  28. Steve O says:

    English Comp 101 and 102, which I took at a junior college, are the two most important courses I had in college, including grad school. Thank you, Illinois Valley Community College and Richard Publow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *